How to Get Away With Murder Was Queer TV Royalty

Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) kissing Connor (Jack Falahee) in ABC's How to Get Away With Murder.
The Coliver hookup that started it all. Photo: ABC

In the first episode of How to Get Away With Murder’s final season, two men have loud sex. It happens offscreen, but Connor and Oliver’s moans of pleasure float through floor and wall, disrupting the conversation downstairs. It’s funny, but it’s also slightly annoying: The show is forcing us to listen to their lovemaking to momentarily ignore the murder-y plots afoot. Across six seasons, Connor and Oliver’s sex has not been infrequent, though this is the first time we heard their residual moans long after their initial disrobing. It’s as if through this interruption, How to Get Away With Murder is reminding us of the unsung legacy it’s leaving behind as a show that slid queer sex front and center, embedded into the stories on our screens.

When the show first started airing, I jokingly called it How to Get Away With Gay Sex Scenes to friends (and on my burner Twitter account). But in truth, it made me blush. I was shocked to be watching something like it on primetime network television, even in 2014. Now in 2020, it might be easy to take for granted, but HTGAWM and its out, gay creator and showrunner Peter Nowalk made history. In the pilot, Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) brings Connor (Jack Falahee) home and the pair does something hitherto unseen on American broadcast TV. After making out naked and in bed, Connor tells Oliver to “turn over.” When he obliges, Connor pecks his back with kisses, moving downward until Oliver arches his back and moans in pleasure. There is no nudity, of course, but if if you know how two men have sex, it’s obvious what’s happening: He’s getting rimmed. While HBO’s Looking had one of premium cable’s first male-on-male anilingus scenes since Queer As Folk in 2000, How to Get Away With Murder did the same thing only eight months later, but on broadcast television, in its first episode, with a TV-14 rating. It was something that felt impossible with these qualifiers — because until then it was.

How to Get Away With Murder risked putting queer sex front and center for an audience that may not have been asking for it. For this, it should be remembered as queer-TV royalty. While Annalise Keating’s immortal line “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” remains etched in the show’s reputation, equally table-shaking was “He did this thing to my ass that made my eyes water,” uttered by Connor’s hookup in the series’ fourth episode (just in case viewers were oblivious to Connor’s sex act of choice). The show featured not just butt stuff, but threesomes, and, in the second season’s eighth episode, our two men coming up from 69-ing — a moment I gasped at among friends when I watched. It featured dialogue and plotlines about hookup apps, storylines about consent in queer culture, and serodifferent relationships. This isn’t just about titillation, of course. What’s important is that people actually learned something. I think of what Jonathan Groff once said in an interview about Looking, how straight people often told him “they didn’t know gay people could have sex while facing each other until they saw the show.” It might sound silly to say, but there’s something about the capacity to see humanity here. Queer sex had been relegated from general audiences for so long, that viewers (both straight and possibly even queer) couldn’t visualize it.

Perhaps the biggest feat HTGAWM performed is that it made queerness feel like it could exist anywhere and everywhere. At the start of the show’s second season, it is “revealed” to the audience that Viola Davis’s Annalise Keating is queer. When Eve (Famke Janssen), an old friend from law school, arrives with elusive talk about a past and “something to hide,” the two make love in her hotel bed, joking in future episodes about the sheets. It’s loving and romantic, and it establishes that Annalise has been queer all along — we just didn’t explicitly know it yet. This play with audience expectations meant that, afterward, it felt like any character might be a love interest, or might reveal that they too aren’t only interested in heterosexuality. In this, as is true to life, queerness is never off the table.

Annalise and Eve. Photo: ABC

It would be a mistake, too, to overlook race and power. With Annalise’s reveal, the show had suddenly centered a black queer person. Name another drama with a black queer lead protagonist on primetime broadcast television right now (and then consider this in combination with Conrad Ricamora’s Oliver, whose Filipino-American heritage is affirmed in Connor and Oliver’s season-five wedding episode). While the show’s queer sex is overwhelmingly cis and more often male, HTGAWM works to depict queer sex not just among all the straight sex that is also happening, but within daily life. Today there are plenty of shows, particularly streamers, that have queer characters having sex: Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, Special, Dear White People, and Euphoria are just some of many. The frequency of these storylines and the boundaries they push feel indebted to HTGAWM. It’s a soap drama that allowed a black, queer woman to bring (and win) a class action suit to the Supreme Court about the disproportionate imprisonment of black people — and that also allowed us to watch lots of hot, gay sex. The series used genre to hold all of its parts together at once, not just to heighten the drama but to alter what life could look like and how it’s represented in mainstream culture.

In its final season, HTGAWM has covered all its bases to remind us of its queer legacy. We’ve seen so many combinations of sex between Connor and Oliver that gone are any questions of who is the “top” and who is the “bottom,” who is more “masculine” or “sexual.” The now-married couple has even had their first threesome, brought on by a client’s dating app. “I thought this would be harder,” Oliver says to Connor. They and the show are testing the boundaries. Connor and Oliver aren’t officially “open” — or, at least, this hasn’t been stated to the audience yet — and I’m not sure that we’ll ever get that answer, or that it matters. But it’s yet another factor of queerness, of non-normativity, that the show puts on the table. So too has the final season been a continued exploration of Annalise’s own queerness. In the 11th episode, after often evading an explicit label, she finally expressed to her mother that she once loved a woman. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping the show ends with her running away with one too.

In 2014, I remember bringing a crush over to my shared apartment to watch the latest episodes of the first season. He had seen Tumblr GIF sets from Connor and Oliver’s sex scene in the pilot and was curious to watch. Neither of us are white, and we weren’t used to seeing a show with so much queerness, with so many characters of color in orbit. We ourselves were old enough to be in law school, and I even thought, This could be us. I wanted it to be. He crashed at my place, but we only spooned. I chickened out from kissing him the following morning, but after, I was still filled with adventure — knowing next time I’d dare as the show did and take a risk. In episode after episode from that point on, the show continued to reveal its hand, evolving into a legacy I didn’t see brewing. It showed us that queer people and queer sex have been around forever. That they’re here to stay and screw, that they’re in places even when you aren’t looking. How to Get Away With Murder will go down in history: It’s a show that put queer sex and queer characters of color into the most mainstream corner of TV.

How to Get Away With Murder Was Queer TV Royalty